When Daisy Ridley emerged from the shadows of a sizzle reel promoting The Rise of Skywalker last week, the internet went into temporary meltdown. Draped in a black cloak reminiscent of that of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and brandishing a reticulated red lightsaber recalling Sith lord Darth Maul, this unveiling drove fans wild with speculation, branding her ‘Dark Rey’. Is this Rey a clone or a twin? Might Dark Rey be a so-called ‘Force vision’ or dream? Could she succumb to the Dark Side?
Given that Star Wars is a franchise known for hinting at, and even fulfilling, a character’s switch of allegiance, questions about Dark Rey’s narrative purpose are currently impossible to answer. Luke (Mark Hamill) had an unclear trajectory in The Empire Strikes Back, for example; Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) flipped from Jedi to Sith in the prequels. Nevertheless, online responses to Dark Rey reveal a great deal about both the films and the fandom. For her merely seconds-long appearance onscreen not only caused wild speculation, but drove many fans wild with desire.
And not just any desire. Across the Twittersphere, fans shared outpourings of adoration for Dark Rey that were sexual and queer. While I’m cautious about determining people’s gender and sexual identities online (and as such do not link to quoted tweets to respect people’s privacy and safety), many womxn’s responses situated them as lesbian, bi, pan or otherwise sexually motivated by Rey’s new aesthetic. In one such post, a woman fantasised that “Dark Rey called me a slut and told me to get down on all fours.” Another acknowledged:
“me: rey isn’t going to go dark don’t be silly
my entire gay brain lit up: darkside hot…. scary angry girl sexy”
Yet another woman admitted in a moment of wishful subservience that “i’ve only had dark rey for a day but i would risk it all for her.” Whether performative or heartfelt, fan demonstrations of queer desire for Dark Rey are at odds with the respect that the films demand for chaste, Light Rey in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
In the previous two films, Rey dresses in an androgynous tunic and leggings that mask rather than emphasise the outline of her gendered body. She resists the school playground advances of Finn (John Boyega), who really just wants to hold her hand. And while Kylo Ren exhibits a toxic desire to control her – with a devoted following of so-called ‘Reylo’ stans shipping a Rey-Kylo relationship – viewers aren’t meant to share in the objectification. His intense stares and invitation to turn to the Dark Side and rule the galaxy together are the perverse gestures of a sexual deviant that the dominant reading of the text positions audiences to reject. If you want Rey to succeed, The Last Jedi tells us, you have to will Rey to retain her innocence. As a scavenger she is virginal; as a Jedi she is likely celibate. Light Rey is not the object of sexual desire you are looking for.
The contrast between Light Rey’s purity and Dark Rey’s queerification therefore exposes the complex power dynamics of gender and sexuality in the films and fandom of a notoriously LGBTQ-unfriendly franchise. For Dark Rey is a hyper-sexualised Rey. She’s BDSM Rey, gay Rey, the Rey who has a Feeld profile and definitely dgaf about your boring cishet boyfriend. She’s the sequels’ equivalent to Princess Leia in a gold bikini, only now she’s making you take off your clothes while she watches… and if Twitter is anything to go by, you’ll love it.
Although there is nothing overtly queer about Dark Rey’s appearance, it’s likely the darkness itself that mobilises fans’ sexual readings of and engagements with the character. Together, Light and Dark Rey are binary opposites in the age-old Madonna/whore dynamic that has underpinned representations of women for as long as Hollywood can remember (think, as one Star Wars fan did, of the sweet to sexy transformation of Olivia Newton-John’s character Sandy in Grease). To adequately champion Light Rey and resist the evil of Kylo Ren, viewers are required to see her as asexual. Whereas when it comes to Dark Rey, they have permission to objectify. The velvet gloves are off and the Dark Side’s propensity for masks is on.
Additionally, there’s a long cinematic history of evil characters (often implicitly) being framed as queer – see, for example, Hitchcockian murderers, Disney villains, and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley. Underpinning queer readings of Dark Rey’s subversive sexuality, then, are a film library of characters that are gay and challenge the good and decent status quo. As feminist academic and activist Sara Ahmed points out, ‘to make things queer is certainly to disturb the order of things.’ She also suggests that queer people turn away from heterosexual culture and what is effectively a ‘straight’ path: ‘The queer subject within straight culture hence deviates and is made socially present as a deviant.’ This is where things get more complicated. While many people (myself included) enjoy sexualised Dark Rey, the connection between darkness, deviance, and queer culture is a troubling one that often serves to ‘other’ and alienate LGBT communities in heteronormative societies.
The marginalisation of queer people is also exacerbated by a general lack of LGBT representation in the Star Wars franchise. Some do appear in the comics and novels: there is non-binary Taka in Last Shot, and Sinjir, Esmelle and Shirene in Aftermath. However, queer characters do not usually make it onto the big screen. Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) bucked the trend as a potentially bi or pansexual woman in The Last Jedi (in one novel, she describes heterosexuality as “so limiting” in an exchange with Leia) – however, her sexuality was not addressed in the film. Similarly, filmmakers reported that Lando (Donald Glover) was pan yet did not explicitly acknowledge the fact in Solo. As the Star Wars Representation Matters Twitter account and hashtag (#SWRepMatters) demonstrate, fans are desperate for inclusion and are hoping to find and own queerness in the films wherever possible. Hence there were gleeful reports in 2018 when a fan noticed two male-feathered porgs (blink and you’ll miss them) sharing a gay hug in the background of The Last Jedi. Yes, really, LGBT representation is that bad.
It’s possible, though, that you don’t have to look as hard for queer characters in Star Wars as porg-spotting and Disney’s queer-baiting rhetoric might suggest. As queer theorist Jack Halberstam argues, queer time and space (which emerged from gay communities during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s) is not only about the ‘threat of annihilation,’ but also living ‘a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing.’ They suggest that queerness is about imagining a future according to non-traditional life experiences that are not determined by the heteronormative cycle of birth, marriage, reproduction, and death. Queer people also live ‘deliberately, accidentally, or out of necessity’ in the spaces ‘that others have abandoned.’
Thus, in the context of queer time and space, it’s fairly easy, in fact, to read Star Wars characters as representing elements of queer culture. Both the Resistance and the First Order (all those stormtroopers on the Star Killer Base, anyone?) face the constant threat of annihilation. Through Rey, who comes from “nothing,” has no parents, and may lead a Jedi life without sex, the films subvert expectations about inheritance and childbearing (indeed, in a time of war, having children isn’t any character’s main concern).
What is more, alongside the parentless Finn, Poe, and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), Rey establishes an unconventional family based on ideological affinity and emotional care – co-opting, perhaps, the support mechanism of black trans people in New York Ballroom-scene Houses. Together, the House of the Last Jedi shifts from Jakku to Takodana, and from transient spacecraft to Crait; always, out of necessity, operating from abandoned spaces that others have left behind. And if any further evidence of a queer sensibility is needed, Ahmed’s observation that ‘the queer couple in straight space might look like they are slanting, or oblique’ provides it. Characters from Rey and Val (Thandie Newton) to Lando and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) turn, twist and slice through space at impossible angles, always oblique, always slanted, and always deviating from the straight and easy path.
When The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson claimed in a 2017 interview that “sexuality, in general, is not something that’s front of mind in any of these movies,” he perhaps failed to reckon with the thousands of Star Wars fans who are keen to see some queer action. More recently, the cast have advocated LGBT storylines, with actors Oscar Isaac and John Boyega acknowledging that a large swathe of the fandom ships their characters Poe and Finn (“I’m very open to those storylines,” said Isaac). Now, with the advent of Dark Rey, Disney has turned Daisy Ridley’s Jedi into a rogue woman that plays to all of society’s fears about untrustworthy femme fatales and queer women that deviate from heteronormative values. It may not be deliberate, and it may not be the best path by which to arrive at more queer representation in the onscreen franchise. But whether Dark Rey is a queer Sith-tease or something of a new hope, she’s certainly giving womxn a lot of feels. If the journey to queer inclusivity in the franchise is slanted… well, no doubt many of the Star Wars fandom will be very here for that.
by Rebecca Harrison
Rebecca Harrison is a film and pop culture critic for Sight & Sound, The Mary Sue and BBC Radio Scotland, among others, and she’s currently writing a book about Star Wars. She’s a fan of wearing too much eyeliner, Virginia Woolf and dancing like no one is watching, and her favourite films range from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari via 90s romcoms to Fish Tank. She’s on Twitter @beccaeharrison
Categories: Feminist Criticism